Science and Public Discourse


  • Liora Salter York University


Public Discourse, Science, Liora Salter, HIC, 2003


This paper explores the relationship between science and public discourse as an issue of interdisciplinarity. It asks three questions: can scientists speak to non-scientists in such a way that non-scientists truly understand what is being said; can there be a genuine transfer of knowledge between the two; and how fungible are the boundaries between science and public discourse? It argues that most people dealing with these questions are informed by an old model of communication - one that sees it in terms of moving messages from sender to receiver, not as social interaction. It questions whether there is, or indeed should be, an eager audience for scientific information. Finally, it suggests that only mandated scientists take up the challenge of communicating science to the public, but it notes that the efforts of mandated scientists in this regard are rarely endorsed by working scientists. By reconceiving communication, and emphasizing audience needs, one can answer the first two questions positively. But problems still remain in the relationship between working and mandated scientists, and these still pose a challenge for interdisciplinary research.

Author Biography

Liora Salter, York University

Liora Salter FRSC is a Professor at York University, where she teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School and in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. She has degrees in sociology and communication, and is the author of a number of books and articles in the areas of communications, science and technology, law, public policy, and interdisciplinary research, including such titles as "The Housework of Capitalism: Setting Standards for the New Communication and Information Technologies" (1994) and "Standard Setting in Canada" (1995). Her books include Public Inquiries in Canada (1981), Mandated Science: Science and Scientists in the Making of Public Policy (1988), and Outside the Lines: Issues in Interdisciplinary Research (1996), which she co-authored with Alison